The day of the two-hour marathon
It is May 6, 2024. London Marathon day. The date set by Lord Bedford of Shaftesbury after detailed discussions with the Ministry of Climate Control. The day when running 42.2 kilometres should be perfect.
Millions are gathered around the course, and a battery of television cameras are focused on the bright orange strip of all-weather running track, two metres wide, that snakes the miles from Blackheath to Buckingham Palace. The crowds and the cameras are there to witness one thing – the latest attempt on the long-awaited two-hour marathon.
Ever since China’s Ho Li Futsa failed to beat the barrier by just 12.75 seconds on the newly flattened Boston course, the sporting world had been ablaze with talk of the two-hour marathon. Ho had been disqualified, of course, after failing a routine genetic modification test, but even so he had shown what might be possible.
London had been starved of world records since crowds had flocked to the Campbell Stadium for the far-off Olympics of 2012, but now all eyes are on the 24-year-old Ethiopian, Abebe Tufimu, who is being flown to the start line in Lord Bedford’s personal helicopter, recognisable as ever by the giant 118 painted proudly on its side.
Tufimu, the latest product of the Radcliffe Academy of Marathoning, has been programmed (using subcutaneous chip implants) to cover mile after mile in 4:33.8 seconds, and his body will be monitored every step of the way by the team of scientists and coaches back in their control room at the Tower Hotel. They will relay analysis from their computers and their instructions via Tufimu’s built-in earpiece – which will also take the feed throughout the race from his personal hypnotherapist.
Despite his billion-dollar contract with Bittel Boots, Tufimu is not wearing shoes, as such, for this marathon. His feet have been painted, just 90 minutes before the race, with a tough, flexible weatherproof coating – and one of the latest, wafer-thin energy-return soles has been laserglued to the bottom of each foot. Several of the pacemakers, who will each take 3,000-metre stretches of the race in a relay, have chosen to take advantage of the specially-laid 26 mile synthetic track surface by running in spikes.
Tufimu is confident. He was genetically identified as a distance runner at the age of six, and his years of physical training at altitude guarantee that at sea level he can churn out mile after mile, taking exactly 193 steps to the minute, with every stride measuring precisely 1.58m. He is also an expert in psychological arousal, the technique, which enables him to flood his body with naturally produced male hormones, not unlike the steroids so commonly used in the early years of the 21st century.
He knows, too, that the rewards for running the world’s first two-hour marathon are immeasurable – a guaranteed place in sporting history and, because of his sponsorship contract, a guaranteed million dollars a year for life.
Another four-minute mile?
So is this how it will be done? Can the marathon’s most alluring barrier be broken only by a synthetic superman from East Africa, and in the most perfect of conditions?
Exactly 50 years ago, back in 1954, a barrier that seemed every bit as daunting and impossible as the two-hour marathon loomed in the world of record-breaking runners – the four-minute mile. Few sporting challenges have ever captured the public imagination in quite the same way. The feat was compared to the scaling of Everest or the landing of a man on the moon.
Some thought the four-minute mile was simply impossible. It was even suggested that an athlete might collapse and die if he subjected his body to such stress. Even those who believed that the four-minute barrier could be broken thought it could be done only in the most perfect and exceptional circumstances.
They confidently predicted it would have to be run in Scandinavia. The track would be hard, dry clay and rolled cinders. There would not be a breath of wind and the temperature would be an ideal 68°F. A large and enthusiastic crowd would lift the runners psychologically. The pace would have to be perfect.
But Roger Bannister did it on a wet track on a windy day, before a small crowd in the relative backwater of Oxford. Much of the enduring fascination of Bannister’s barrier-breaking triumph was that this seemingly superhuman effort was achieved with the most amateur of approaches in far from perfect conditions.
Of course, the four-minute mile ‘barrier’, like the two-hour marathon barrier half a century later, was an entirely artificial one – an accidental coming together of time and distance. Yet the breaking of it mesmerised the sporting world and has kept Roger Bannister’s name a part of sporting folklore ever since.
The reason why Bannister did it first, when so many others had tried and failed, had as much to do with his mind as with his body. He had great self-belief and, above all, he was convinced that no ‘barrier’ existed.
The limits of running performance
Dr Tim Noakes, the South African physician and long distance runner, in his comprehensive book Lore of Running, examines the limits of running performance, from the mile to the two-hour marathon and beyond. He believes that Bannister’s success as a barrier breaker and, conversely, the failure of his Australian rival John Landy, ‘was because Bannister was able to convince his brain that it could achieve what none had done before. Landy’s brain, on the other hand, laboured under a false notion of his and other humans’ true physical ability.
‘Bannister and his coach,’ says Noakes, ‘used their conviction that some other runner, probably Landy, was about to break the barrier as the spur for their attempt on May 6, 1954, even though conditions were far from ideal on that day.’
Ever since Bannister, athletics experts have been more wary of setting limits to physical feats. When Khalid Khannouchi broke the world record in April 2002, winning the Flora London Marathon in 2hr 5min 38sec, speculation about breaking two hours reached a new level. But Khannouchi himself was quick to pour cold water on the idea that the magic time might be just around the corner. He said he didn’t expect anyone to do it for at least another 50 years.
Similarly, the next record breaker, Paul Tergat of Kenya, seems to reckon that man is getting close to the limit in marathon running. Tergat broke the 2hr 5min barrier with his amazing 2hr 4min 55sec. His improvement of 43 seconds was the biggest in five years.
‘I believe that records are set to be broken,’ he said, ‘and to fall lower is possible. But what remains impossible is running a marathon in under two hours.’ Then, with a smile, he added: ‘Maybe time will chide me.’
Tergat runs in this year’s Flora London Marathon, where Khannouchi has shown what can be done when you have well-drilled pacemakers, good weather and the spur of a hugely talented field. Further improvements will come, Khannouchi believes, with innovations in running shoes, a better surface than most marathon roads provide, and breakthroughs in sports science.
But, as Bannister showed with the four-minute mile, while better shoes and better surfaces might help, the decisive factors are still likely to be selfbelief and the spur of fierce competition.
The first marathon runner (amateur or professional) to break the 2:30 barrier was Albert ‘Whitey’ Michelson of the USA in 1925. Two years later he was beaten in a marathon in New York by a Hopi Indian, running in moccasins. The Indian had never before seen an asphalt road, but neither had he ever before been away from altitude.
It took another 28 years before the 2:20 barrier was broken. Then, in June 1953, Britain’s Jim Peters of Essex Beagles, ran 2:18:41 over the famous Poly course from Windsor to Chiswick.
Len ‘Buddy’ Edelen, an American living and working in England, dipped under 2:15 on the same course in June 1963, and on December 3, 1967, in Fukuoka Japan, Derek Clayton went three seconds under the 2:10 barrier.
Since then, the explosion of big city marathons, the emergence of professionalism and the lure of big prize money has led to the steady erosion of records, with the men’s record being broken eight times since 1980. But still, to many, the magic two-hour marathon seems a long way off.
Way back in 1970, Britain’s evergreen Ron Hill ran a then world’s best marathon time of 2:09:28. He was a pioneer of the famous carbohydrateloading diet, and he believed that a barrier to improved times existed simply because of the problems of fuelling the muscles.
‘Unless doctors find a method,’ he said, ‘or evolution results in bigger people with longer legs, we’ll never get down to two hours. I think it’s impossible simply because I don’t believe the human body is capable of carrying that much energy store in available glycogen or fat.’
But the man who finished one place behind Ron Hill in the 1972 Olympic marathon, Scotland’s Donald Macgregor, predicts: ‘The sub two-hour marathon will be run, and first by a man not a woman, but it could be 30 years before it happens. There must be limits to human ability, but it is certain that athletes will continue to push back the limits. Clearly there are other factors, like fame and money, but these are never the motive for the truly successful runners. They run because they love running.’
‘The odds at present,’ says Macgregor, ‘would have to be on an athlete of African origin doing it, whatever flag he runs under. China, Japan and Korea could be in the running but, much as I hate saying it, I think Europe, as things stand, has had it at that level.’
Predictions, of course, are dangerous things – all too liable to be overtaken by time. Over 30 years ago, Arthur Lydiard, the renowned New Zealand coach and exercise physiologist, pronounced that a 2:05 marathon would be the limit of human performance. But the two-hour marathon has a ring about it that seems to get everybody gazing into a crystal ball.
Hugh Jones, the 1982 London Marathon winner, who every year measures the course, reckons it will come but is still half a century away. ‘Not in my lifetime,’ says Stan Greenberg, one of the world’s foremost track statisticians. ‘To keep up that pace for 26 miles is unthinkable,’ he says. ‘It’s the mental pressure that will hold them back. It looks impossible at the moment.’
The great Australian record-breaker Ron Clarke thinks the marathon is still underdeveloped. ‘It’s still relatively slow compared with, say, the 10,000 metres,’ he said. ‘Two hours is a bit quick, but 2:01, 2:02 is realistic.’
The great Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie, who knows a thing or two about distance running and a lot about his friend, world record-holder Paul Tergat, thinks the two-hour marathon is a certainty. ‘What Tergat did in Berlin,’ he says, ‘has made the possibility of a two-hour marathon quite logical. I cannot believe it will be long before such a time is run.’
The predictions may vary, but what is clear is that there are plenty of experts rubbing their hands at the prospect of the two-hour marathon. And, as with the four-minute mile, the murmurings will build to a crescendo as runners increasingly threaten to breach the barrier.
Scientific breakthroughs in training and equipment may help tomorrow’s runners in their quest. But the reality is that many of the factors that produced the world’s first sub four-minute mile may also deliver the first sub two-hour marathon.
As with the mile, there will be the promise of a permanent niche in sporting history. As with the mile, there will be the spur of intercontinental competition. And as with the mile, the recordbreaker will have to have an overriding belief that the feat is possible.
The four-minute mile was hailed as a triumph of the human will. And when the two-hour marathon is run, as it surely will be, it is to be hoped that it, too, will be a triumph of the human will rather than a victory for perverted science.
The ever-optimistic Dave Bedford believes we will see it within 20 years. Don’t forget, you read it here first. It will be done in London in 2024.
Some say that the future Lord Bedford has already placed his bet!
3:59.4 – The Quest to Break the 4 Minute Mile
by John Bryant, is published by Hutchinson, £14.99. This article is reprinted by kind permission of London Marathon Ltd.